COMMENTS recently attributed to MDC-T spokesman and Information Communication Technology Minister Nelson Chamisa regarding government’s inordinate delays in licensing private and commercial broadcasters serve as an alarming reminder of how terribly misdirected the media reform debate in Zimbabwe has become.
Chamisa reportedly told SW Radio Africa’s Newsreel programme that it is imperative that the government licenses private broadcasters “because if you don’t licence (them) they will license themselves via the internet and other forms of ICTs”.
To be fair, there is nothing wrong with the honourable Minister pitching the virtues of his government portfolio but, and with respect, his comments betray an irresponsible disregard for Zimbabwe’s sub-national reality with regard to ICTs.
A bit of “non-partisan” reflection on Chamisa’s part would demonstrate that the constrained nature of Zimbabwe’s ICT topography renders it commercially injudicious for prospective private and “independent” media organisations to “license themselves (and therefore operate illegally) through ICTs”.
Even more critical for the MDC-T spokesman is the fact that media pluralism which resides only in ICTs is of little value to his party’s “change” agenda primarily because internet penetration in Zimbabwe presently averages just 10 percent of the resident population.
Indeed Zanu PF’s information strategists would be delighted to see the proposed “independent” newspapers publish only on the internet because, on that platform, their reach would be limited to a miniscule and therefore politically insignificant.
Minister Chamisa gives the examples of Iran, Venezuela and Burma, where he claims ICTs have helped overcome media restrictions but he fails to highlight the fact that Iran and Venezuela have much higher internet penetration rates relative to Zimbabwe; 34 percent in the case of Iran and 28 percent for Venezuela.
Even so, the “regime change” agenda spectacularly collapsed in Iran and has largely failed in Venezuela, notwithstanding the more extensive usage of ICTs in these countries.
This, however, does not understate the tremendous potential of ICTs to “transform socio-political communication and therefore enhance democracy and citizenship”.
Theoretical and empirical evidence abounds to show the awesome influence of the internet in facilitating the “sovereign liberation” of both the individual and communities.
In an article titled ‘Liberation by the internet: How Technology destroys tyranny”, writer Gennady Stolyarov argues that the internet is a tremendous tool for individual liberation with the “power to actually bring down oppressive governments …”
He adds that “as a decentralised communication system facilitating the sending and receiving of messages by billions of people, the internet (has) greatly shifted the balance of power away from governments and toward sovereign individuals”.
Without doubt, ICTs have fertilised economic, social and political movements across the world including in the United States where the election of President Barack Obama is an obvious example.
In fact the collective future of traditional media platforms such as newspapers, television and radio is under threat in the more developed countries from the Internet.
Websites such as The Huffington Post have been accused of “killing” newspapers in the United States while the future of terrestrial and satellite broadcasting is equally imperilled with the Financial Times recently reporting that television has lost advertising to the Internet.
But ICTs possess this tremendous socio-political transformative capability in Europe and North America because internet diffusion in these geo-polities is far more extensive compared to the developing countries.
In the United States, internet usage averages 74 percent; in the United Kingdom it is 79,8 percent while Norway and Spain have 56 percent and 71 percent respectively.
For Zimbabwe, however, it is short of delusional to expect the internet to significantly transform the country’s economic and socio-political landscape as long as its geographical reach remains so constrained.
Indeed, the fact that nearly 20 years after the internet was released from military to commercial and civilian use by the US government, Zimbabwe’s penetration rate is still only 10 percent suggests that this is a technology for the medium term.
As such, the ongoing media reform debate would be more helpful if it focuses on restructuring the existing print and broadcast platforms to facilitate diversity and pluralism and, more importantly, achieve that transformation within the life of the inclusive government and certainly before the next election.
Principally, Minister Chamisa and his colleagues in the inclusive government must restructure the country’s Public Service Broadcasting (PBS) infrastructure to ensure that it begins to serve the “public” and not just the “state”.
Much as it is important to licence more private and commercial newspapers, the fact remains that print media is hindered by limited circulation and an urban bias while television and radio have a much wider reach.
Zanu PF appears to understand this crucial dynamic better, which explains why President Robert Mugabe, for instance, fulminates endlessly over the foreign-based “pirate” radio stations but demonstrates little, if any, concern about the opposition-aligned and locally-based independent weeklies.
The other reason broadcasting services reform must focus on the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings is the fact that television is a capital intensive business which makes it unlikely that a private commercial player (of comparable institutional size and audience reach) can be established in the life of the inclusive government before the next election.
Nevertheless, the reform exercise can only be advanced if the opposition dispenses with its ill-advised view that the reason ZBH has progressively failed to fulfil its public service mandate is because the institution is staffed by incompetent and overzealous regime apologists.
On the contrary, the majority of people working at ZBH are competent and hardworking professionals whose efforts are sadly undermined by the fact that they are appallingly under-resourced while the institution cannot evade state interference because its existing legislative and funding framework is not fit for purpose.
It is important to remember, however, that ZBH’s problems are both structural and historic.
Subversion of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings to state authority can be traced to its Rhodesian days under Ian Smith’s dictatorial and racist settler administration.
Zanu PF merely continued what Ian Smith actually started and their rationale (which is not entirely imaginary) was that the emergent nation-state faced serious internal and exogenous threats to its nascent life.
In the essay ‘Subverted institutions and Democracy: Zimbabwe and the struggle for Democracy’, Kasper Beech explains the “institutional, cultural and legal continuance between Rhodesia and Zimbabwe”.
He says the “Smith administration subverted the power of the judiciary, bypassed the constitutional council and passed laws anathema to democracy”, all in the name of regime preservation.
The essay adds that while “universal adult suffrage was introduced” following the attainment of independence in 1980, “the subversion of the Smith regime which had hamstrung the judiciary, vested emergency powers in the executive, outlawed criticism of government and silenced the media continued”.
There is every chance, therefore, that a post-power sharing government will simply do what Zanu PF and, before them Ian Smith, have done with ZBH, unless the institution’s editorial and operational independence from the state is more effectively guaranteed NOW.
Zimbabweans cannot hope to have the power to make the current and future governments accountable and responsive to their needs as long as a public media that is subservient to state authority continues to dominate the industry.
Politicians in both Zanu PF and the MDCs are keenly aware of the fact that information is power and that, as history shows, an informed citizenry can easily remove errant governments from power.
Indeed as the writer Gennady Stolyarov observes, “The USSR was destroyed not by the conventional means of invasion or violent revolution but by the flow of information.
“… communism fell without the participation of the (Soviet) army for or against; it fell without having a new political party against the communists … it was done by the communists (themselves); it fell without the intervention of the United States, Europe, China or anybody else … authoritarian governments become weak the minute they could no longer blind their people or control information.”